That’s the way it is (again).

July 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

When I heard that Walter Cronkite had died over the weekend I thought, get ready for all the “That’s the way it was” eulogies that will make inverted use of Cronkite’s famous sign-off from his evening broadcasts, “That’s the way it is,” to point out that the world over which Cronkite presided – truly presided – is gone.

All I can say is, thank goodness we had Walter Cronkite when we did. The retrospective 60 Minutes offered on the anchorman, “That’s the way it was: Remembering Walter Cronkite” took us through an extraordinary time when worlds collided in our country beginning, most dramatically, with the assassination of President Kennedy. I remember watching the broadcast of his funeral on our black and white television in the dining room of our house. (The dining room, because that was the only place to get reception.) Then there was the assassination of President Kennedy’s brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Then, Vietnam, Woodstock, The Beatles, the Apollo Space program and the landing on the moon. The 1968 Democratic Convention. Watergate. These are all events that still shape our consciousness and conversation as a country.

But we had Walter Cronkite, and other heirs of Edward R. Murrow, who sought a certain sobriety in broadcast journalism that was person-to-person. Had the instincts of broadcast network news been more prone to the sensationalism and slick production values that became essential to the audience ratings game, and that took news out of the living room and put it on a stage – and that made actors out of anchormen – we might still be throwing rocks in the streets.

But, we had Cronkite and in last night’s 60 Minutes retrospective one especially poignant clip showed Cronkite taking a telephone call on-air from Tom Johnson, then press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, with news that the former President had died. The Evening News program was returning from commercial break and there was Walter Cronkite sitting at his desk, on the telephone. He motioned to the audience as you might motion to anyone asking them to be patient. He held up a finger. Then he explained, still holding the receiver, “I’m on the telephone with Tom Johnson, press secretary of Lyndon Johnson…,” etc. etc. I watched and thought, “He’s blogging.”

These days on-air personalities wear ear plugs, like secret service agents, through which people are constantly talking to them. In “The Situation Room” (pleease) with Wolf Blitzer, he will sometimes pause to say, breathlessly, “We’re just getting word.” But, it’s the media machine talking in the background. Global information robots and satellites. Cronkite was on the telephone, in our living room, talking to us. Cronkite was an anchor, not an actor. You never got the feeling he was selling you something.

Which helps make sense to me all over again why I’m comfortable with what journalism is becoming, even as worlds still collide. Thanks to the testimonies and inputs from citizen journalists around the world – bloggers, opinion-aters, text-ers, web publishers and the like – news lives in the real world again. It features the sort of one-to-one moments when Walter Cronkite was in your living room, holding up a finger, bidding you to wait just a minute while he gets the story. Call it process journalism or citizen journalism, or whatever. It’s news. And that’s the way it is.

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